I’ve been doing a lot of macro-level discussion here of late–big picture, high strategy stuff. Today, I’d like to dip down into the micro.
Men (and today, women) fight wars. They are, we are always told, ordinary individuals who find themselves in the most extraordinary situations imaginable.
The Battle of Midway was one of those situations. It featured two immense fleets sailing hundreds of miles apart, each one desperate to find the other first (the Holy Grail of carrier warfare in that era). That wasn’t as easy as it sounds–the area to be searched was roughly 100,000 square miles. The battle narrative should be familiar to all students of the war. The initial disaster for the Americans. The death ride of Torpedo Squadron 8. Fifteen planes in. Fifteen planes destroyed. And then, the turning of the tide: a group of SBD Dauntless dive bombers, frustrated by not finding the Japanese, low on fuel, and already thinking of heading for home, spotting a lone Japanese destroyer hurrying to rejoin the main fleet and following it in.
What followed was one of the most destructive 15 minute periods in the history of war, as a handful of naval aviators destroyed three Japanese aircraft carriers, and broke the power of the Japanese carrier arm. To U.S. ears, the names of the sunken vessels, Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu, should always have a magical ring. They would be joined later that day by a fourth carrier, Hiryu, and the victory would be complete.
An improbable win, certainly. Evenly matched fleets don’t normally produce such lopsided results. But the most improbable moment of all–one of the war’s great stories–was the amazing experience of Ensign George H. Gay, Jr. of Waco, TX. He was the pilot of a Devastator torpedo bomber in VT-8, and like every single man in his squadron, he experienced the terror of being shot down at sea. With his plane hit and losing altitude, he momentarily considered crashing into the nearest carrier (the Kaga). And then he splashed. Every pilot knew that your chances weren’t good in the middle of the Pacific. There were a lot of ways to die before you got picked up, IF you got picked up at all. Gay sat there bobbing up and down in the water, in the middle of the Japanese fleet, probably thinking his life was over, trying desperately to hide under his seat cushion. And then he saw a sight, one that quite literally NO one else on Planet Earth could ever claim to have seen: those Dauntlesses hurtling down out of the heavens, pulling out of their dives at the last second, and raining destruction onto the crowded decks of three Japanese carriers.
Ensign Gay saw the US Navy win World War II in the Pacific. Not a bad day at all.
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